In the summer of 2002, I started my 2-year Marie Curie Fellowship at the Joint Research Centre (JRC) of the European Commission at Ispra, a small town in a beautiful area of northern Italy, near Lago Maggiore. My project was to investigate damage mechanisms occurring in today's medical implants, for example, artificial hip joints.
My background is actually in physics, which I studied to a master's level from 1990 to 1995 at Bonn University in my native country Germany. I then spent 6 months as a visiting scientist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, working for a research project in materials science, the field that I had delved into for my master's thesis. I then returned to Germany for over 3 years to do my PhD on the thermal stability of newly developed metallic alloys at the Max Planck Institute for Metals Research at Stuttgart.
While I was thinking about finding my first postdoc position, a former colleague of mine told me about the Marie Curie Individual Fellowships and it was clear to me this is a fellowship I should definitely apply for. Because I had lived abroad many times in the past (not only in South Africa, even before I went to university I had spent some time in the Netherlands and the United States), I was really keen to find an opportunity that would allow me to keep doing so. A Marie Curie Individual Fellowship was also ideal for me because it gave me the freedom to find a project in my area of interest (biomaterials), where I could both get trained and bring some know-how to my new department.
It helps even more if your host institution has experience in writing successful proposals for Marie Curie Fellowships as they also must write a segment of it. OK, that may seem like asking a lot but I mention it because I think the importance of the host institution's contribution should not be underestimated. Their experience with Marie Curie fellows will also pay off when you start your fellowship and if you need someone to help you 'fight' with the local administration so your employment status is recognised.
So I started my project at the Biomaterials and Systems Unit of the Institute for Health and Consumer Protection of JRC Ispra. This unit has some very specialised equipment, in particular a cyclotron which was critical for my research project. Another thing I also really appreciated at JRC was the fact that I was indeed given the freedom to work independently, which allowed me to build strong problem-solving skills. I feel I have learned so much, and the project too has been very successful, as judged by the publications we are in the process of preparing.
Taxes, Laws, and Italian Bureaucracy
As a fellow you will usually be expected to pay income tax in the country your employer is based (and where you are resident). But it also depends on whether there is a bilateral tax agreement between your home and host countries. In my case it meant I had to pay taxes in Italy. But since my employer was not in the legal position to pay my tax contributions directly to the Italian state, I had to take care of that myself.
I would really advise anybody who needs to sort out their tax to get help from a comercialista--your Italian colleagues will probably be able to recommend one. The amount of taxes you will have to pay in Italy seems to also depend on the type of work contract you have and the Italian national laws governing this can change even over the course of a fellowship so do keep this in mind!
When it comes to getting a permesso di soggiorno (work permit or green card)--you will need to go to the local Questura. It would be even more beneficial if someone from your host institution can go there before you arrive to find out what documentation is required. As a citizen of a E.U. member state you are entitled to get a work permit, but procedures frequently change within different provinces in the country and you need to be up to date on the requirements for your province of choice.
Meanwhile I was getting to grips with life in Italy, or should I say, with the Italian language. You might get by with English at your host institute, but if it comes to administration or just getting to know your neighbours, you will need to speak some Italian. In my experience everybody will appreciate the effort you make and speaking the language means you will get a great insight into the culture.
The cultural differences you come across when living abroad can be fascinating. It struck me that--compared to my home country, Germany--people question less. My personal impression was that there is a very Italian way of discussing every aspect of a certain problem but nobody will actually ask, 'Why is it so?' and say: "This is how I think we could do it better". This may come into play in a work environment too. You may find that in the lab your students probably won't question openly what you ask them to do. In my case, it was a learning process on both sides; my students realised that they were allowed to correct me and offer their own ideas on how to continue the project. And I learned that sometimes I had to give 'orders' and follow up on their progress.
Looking back at the last 2 years, I can say that my fellowship in Italy was a fantastic experience for me. Not only did I learn new ways of working but I got to know a fantastic culture and language. I also got involved in the work of the Marie Curie Fellowship Association, which is an excellent network. By doing so I also got to know organisations such as Science's Next Wave and PI-Net and their efforts to support and represent researchers. I haven't decided exactly what my next career step is but I can thoroughly recommend a Marie Curie Fellowship as a great postdoc experience.